The sense of smell, scientists tell us, is the most powerful of all the human senses. It is the only one hard-wired to the brain. Helen Keller, who was born without the sense of sight and hearing said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have live.”
The scent of crushed pine needles always takes me back to my sixteenth summer at Young Life Camp in Colorado. The aroma of coffee brewing reminds me of the first years of our marriage, when my husband and I “christened” every new apartment (we had nine in the first four years) with a pot of coffee, perked on the stove. Cardamom renders me a child again, eating Danish Systekage [sweet raisin bread] in Grandma Geraldson’s warm kitchen. The spicy smell of root beer reminds me of summer evenings during high school, crammed in a car, drinking large frosty mugs of the stuff and eating waffle fries at The Alps, the local drive-in.
Not all smells are pleasant, of course, and I don’t need to remind you of them. Some smells alert us to danger or tell us that action is called for. New parents become intimately familiar with the scent of diapers that need changing. Mystery writers frequently use the smell of blood to alert a sleuth to murder.
An interesting story could be structured around the sense of smell—a sleuth who smells things that others don’t, for example. Or a murderer who, knowing that the sense of smell is connected with the sense of taste, takes advantage an elderly person’s diminished sense of smell to introduce poison into a bedtime drink. (Sorry—mystery writers are always dreaming of unusual ways to knock people off.)
Smells are powerful images in writing, but they’re not easy to express in words. You can tell your reader that a character smells something, but try to describe what they smell and you’re in deep waters. One writer said that fear smells like vinegar. She may be right, but I’m not sure it helps me as a reader.
I’ve used the sense of smell lightly in my manuscript, precisely because the sense is so powerful. As in real life, a little goes a long way.